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Curse of the Jade Scorpion

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: August 2001
Genres: Comedy, Suspense

*Also starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, Brian Markinson, David Ogden Stiers

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I was eight years old I joined my parents on their annual two weeks' vacation in upstate New York. The hotel featured nightly entertainment. The big hit was a performance by a Dr. Polgar, who was at that time a fairly well-known hypnotist. Anyway, the entire crowd was convinced that hypnotism is no fake when I, a little kid, got called up to the stage to stick pins into the fingers and arms of a subject who was under the Polgar spell. No reaction from the poor guy. I guess everyone figured that I couldn't be part of the act, a participant in fraud. The discussion that followed in the lounge centered on the question: can a person under a spell be made to do something against his will?

In "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," two people are made to do two things that you wouldn't expect them to do if they retained all their own marbles. At a party, Insurance investigator CW Biggs (Woody Allen) and an efficiency expert hired by his firm, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), fall under the spell of hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), each performing a criminal act. You'd think that they'd never do something like this absent the hypnosis, but on second thought Woody Allen, who wrote and directed this enchanting comedy, gives us reason to believe that they would indeed have larceny in their hearts.

However, the concept of the film--the second thing that they unexpectedly do--is even more intriguing. By now everyone who has read even the most cursory primer on pop psychology knows that the personality we project in public is often just a front, a cover for our real selves which lie underneath. In Mr. Allen's view, hypnosis can shatter our veneer bringing out our true feelings. Two people who show terminal animosity toward each other, fighting like cats and dogs, actually fall in love with each other, courtesy of Voltan.

The picture opens in the office of an insurance firm with Woody Allen in the role of CW Briggs, a crack investigator of shady claims who always gets his man. He feels threatened, however, when the boss, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), hires an efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), to upgrade the firm's standing. Each moment they are together they are like oil and water, their trading of jibes, their biting repartee forming the nucleus of the movie's wit. When a hypnotist, Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), drags them from the table at a company party, putting them under the power of a jeweled jade scorpion, he convinces the pair that they are madly in love. When he snaps his fingers, they return to the fray. Later, evidence from a pair of mansion robberies seems to point to CW Briggs as the perp rather than the investigator; and when Briggs kicks the captivating heiress Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron) out of his bed, everyone is convinced that something strange has happened to the impeccably honest and hardworking investigator. (What's even stranger, and what seems to have bypassed Mr. Allen's sense of logic, is that Magruder, who is having an affair with Betty Ann, is planning to take her on a trip to 1940??? Good luck.)

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, nor should it be judged by how many belly laughs are evoked from the audience. If that were the criterion, a vulgar but often hilarious movie like "American Pie 2" would take the cake, so to speak. But Woody Allen's movie, so different from his typical psychobabble study of relationships, is the year's winner for its witty dialogue, its simultaneous homage and send-up of old movies with their (by modern standards) artificial and self- conscious acting and screwball buffoonery featuring keystone cops, Veronica-Lake hair styles, and the obligatory serious drinking and chain smoking. Woody Allen and Helen Hunt do a smashing job as people who see each other from the wrong end of a telescope, like magnets whose negative charges are placed side by side with the potential to draw together by a simple twist (or sleight) of hand. The 1940's come across with the sepia tones of Zhao Fei's lensing while the rakish costumes--the mandatory fedoras for males and long dresses for the women--fit right in with Santa Loquasto's design of the epoch's non-cubicled offices. Blink your eyes and the ravishing Charlize Theron is Veronica Lake; close them, listen closely to the games of one- upmanship played by Woody Allen and Helen Hunt, and you're listening to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" may get its name from Chinese mythology but in Woody Allen's vision the picture is pure Americana.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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